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Rape largely unpunished in a modern Mexico's still-machismo society

Saturday, July 06, 2002

By Mary Jordan, The Washington Post

REYESHOGPAN, Mexico -- These gorgeous mountain slopes in central Mexico, blooming with black pepper plants and golden cornstalks, camouflage the sorrow of the two silent sisters. Antonia and Isabel Francisco Melendez, who were born deaf, are nine months pregnant, and, according to the doctors treating them, were raped.

The sisters, who cannot speak, cry and crumple, and fold up, when asked how they got pregnant. Their babies are due at the same time, within a week or so. Do they know the man? Did it happen in the fields on their way home from school? Isabel seemed to try to reply once, to her grandmother, by pointing to a spot high on a mountainside before tears streamed down her face and she turned away again.

Antonia is 13 years old, and Isabel 16. Perhaps if they were older, the pregnancies would have been easier to keep secret, the way rapes and beatings of women are usually dealt with in Mexico. But in this little town of fewer than 500 people, a place where the church bells toll every afternoon at 5 to call everyone to say the rosary, the reality is hard to hide. The girls' tiny frames swell more each day. Their backs and legs are sore -- not from playing tag with schoolmates, but because their bodies are telling them they will soon be mothers.

"This is a crime and there should be an investigation," said Juana Maria Diego Victor, a community leader in this village 85 miles northeast of Puebla city. "Someone should protect these girls."

Mexico is struggling to modernize its justice system, but when it comes to punishing sexual violence against women, surprisingly little has changed in a century. In many parts of Mexico, the penalty for stealing a cow is harsher than the punishment for rape.

Although the law calls for tough penalties for rape -- up to 20 years in prison -- only rarely is there an investigation into even the most barbaric cases of sexual violence. Women's groups estimate that perhaps 1 percent of rapes are ever punished. Although the two girls' medical charts say their pregnancies were the "product of rape," no police authority has looked into the case.

In recent decades, Mexico has made strides in improving women's rights and opportunities. Mexican women still have much higher illiteracy rates than men, but that is slowly changing as young girls are staying in school longer. During the 1990s, laws that trampled women's rights were abolished, such as those that said a married woman needed her husband's permission to hold a job outside the home.

But in the country that made the term "machismo" famous, where women were given the right to vote only in 1953, women's rights advocates said rape and other acts of violence against women are still not treated as serious crimes.

Rape in Mexico is prosecuted at the state level, and state laws vary. A review of criminal laws in all 31 Mexican states showed that many states require that if a 12-year-old girl wants to accuse an adult man of statutory rape, she must first prove she is "chaste and pure." Nineteen of the states require that statutory rape charges be dropped if the rapist agrees to marry his victim.

For a woman to file a criminal complaint alleging rape, she must submit to a medical exam by a doctor assigned by the prosecutor's office. Patricia Duarte, president of the Mexican Association Against Violence Against Women, said these exams, routinely conducted in the prosecutor's office, are often carried out with little sensitivity or privacy. The exams, she said, are an obstacle to reporting rape that contributes to "impunity of rapists" in Mexico.

Whatever problems women face in the cities and towns, they are compounded in small villages where old customs are still the only true law. Ten million Mexicans are indigenous, as are most of the people in these highlands of the Sierra Madre. In Mexico's march toward modernity, there is great tension here between protecting women from violence and honoring indigenous customs.

In many of the thousands of indigenous communities, by longstanding custom, women are essentially servants of their fathers, brothers and husbands. In many villages around Reyeshogpan, a woman is forbidden to go out after dusk without her husband or her husband's permission. After 7 p.m., streets in village after village are populated by men only, many of them drunk. Alcoholism is another problem that contributes to violence against women.

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